Drone Enhances PGA Championship Coverage

The use of drones for coverage at major sports events continues to become a reality, and deployment of one this weekend at the PGA Championship, being held at Whistling Straits, WI, is the latest proof.

“We want to prove to everyone that they can be operated safely and [it] is a valuable tool for the production,” says Tom Sahara, VP, operations and technology, Turner Sports. “We want to prove the tool can be used.”

The CineCopter drone at the PGA Championship requires a team of four to make sure it flies safely over Lake Michigan.

The CineCopter drone at the PGA Championship requires a team of four to make sure it flies safely over Lake Michigan.

The drone debuted covering the marquee groups for PGA.com. CBS Sports will also have access to the shots for its broadcast coverage.

“We have a great working relationship with CBS from doing the PGA Tournament and March Madness for many years,” notes Matt Mosteller, VP, content, Turner Sports. “We all work together and share that equipment.”

The noteworthy addition to the production this year is the use of a drone, supplied by Minneapolis-based Picture Factory, to capture scenic shots and cover the action from a unique perspective.

A number of the holes run alongside Lake Michigan. “We looked at what holes would give us a good story, and hole 8 is one because it has a lot of elevation changes,” says Sahara. “The view from the water lets you see the elevation changes and how the fairway slopes off the water so you can see why the player chose to hit the ball to a certain location.”

Picture Factory, one of the first to receive FAA drone-flight certification, will also capture shots at the 17th hole and can also grab shots on holes 9 and 18.

A team of four operates the drone: pilot, camera operator, an observer to keep an eye on it while the pilot and camera operator focus on getting the right shot from the right place, and a technician, who helps with changing the battery and maintenance so that the others can remain focused on their primary duties.

“[Picture Factory also has] TV and sports experience, so they stood out from other providers. They have a much better understanding of what we like,” says Sahara, adding that the pilot also has experience flying a helicopter for sports events.

“That makes a huge difference,” he explains. “He knows where to be and how to fly, and he and the cameraman work as a team.”

The drone is a CineCopter measuring 4 ft. across and, for this production, carrying a Sony Handycam camcorder.

“The CineCopter gives us a very stable platform,” says Sahara. “It is on the larger side so it doesn’t get pushed around in the wind as much.”

On the opening day of the tournament, when wind gusts hit upwards of 25 mph, shots from the Handycam were stable. The choice of a Handycam offered a number of advantages over other camera packages, including extending the flight time of the drone to 20 minutes.

“It gives us more options because we have a zoom function without having to outfit a box camera and a big zoom lens,” Sahara points out. “There is an HDMI out to the transmitter, so we can have HD-quality images but in a compact package that also helps battery life of the drone.”

Flight time is about 20 minutes per battery, and a backup battery can be changed very quickly to ensure that the drone can get back out to the course with minimal downtime.

Current FAA guidelines call for drones to remain 500 ft. away from the public. Because spectators on the course are not allowed near the water’s edge, the drone can fly within about 300 ft. of the shoreline.